A popular story, repeated throughout the years involving countless different players to a point where I’ve chosen to not believe any of them actually happened, goes something along these lines: a newspaper reporter tracks down a legendary former player and asks him, “How do you think you’d fare if you were playing baseball today?” The legend nonchalantly says, “Oh, I think I’d hit about .270 or so.” The reporter is surprised at this seeming humility before the legend adds, “But you have to keep in mind that I’m sixty-five years old.”
I am generally of the belief that humans are getting progressively better at every sport, but I also believe that those of us who acknowledge steady human improvement also may be overcompensating. Also, Babe Ruth is a problem, because he was fat. We can’t imagine Babe Ruth being a great player because he was clearly out of shape compared to the modern athlete, and we know he was the best player of his era, but we have a far less difficult time imagining Lou Gehrig at least looking like he belongs on the same field as a modern baseball player, even though Gehrig was by any measure a worse player than Ruth.
I assume somebody will get mad at the headline to this article and reply that obviously the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, who won 90 games and a World Series, are a better team than a Baltimore Orioles team that was offering little reason to believe it would be substantially better than the squad that finished 54-108 last season. The best argument for the Orioles being better in 2020 was that they just about had to be. It was unfathomable that they wouldn’t be, even if by accident.
I don’t question that the Cardinals of 2011, if you had a time machine and transported them to 2020, could clobber the Baltimore Orioles. Even if they didn’t have a pitcher who threw quite as hard as Stephen Strasburg or Aroldis Chapman, the Cardinals had players who don’t seem hopelessly outside the realm of modern baseball, even if the sport has changed a little bit over the last nine seasons. But we don’t have a time machine, so we have to picture two modern baseball teams playing a game against each other in 2020, a thing which seems marginally more possible than the invention of a time machine.
I want to know if the 2011 Cardinals roster could beat the 2020 Orioles roster today.
Some people tend to lump in the 2011 Cardinals with the 2006 Cardinals, and this is dramatically unfair to the former. The 2006 Cardinals were an absurdly top-heavy team, featuring an MVP candidate, two other very good players, and twenty-two other guys who were all either spiritually or literally Ronnie Belliard. They won 83 games, nearly blew a big division lead in late September, and stumbled their way to a World Series crown. The 2011 Cardinals had three middle-of-the-order hitters who were within a standard deviation or so of legitimate MVP candidacy, they scored more runs than any other team in the National League, and they were a team that continued to build to October throughout the season–while the 2006 Cardinals stumbled down the stretch, the 2011 Cardinals were clearly peaking at exactly the right time.
But the 2011 Cardinals are also a nine year-old team. They had a few young guys who are now middle-aged to old by MLB standards, and they had a few older guys who are long retired (one member of the team is now in his fifties). At the time they were good, but this is certainly a worse team now than it was then. But the 2020 Baltimore Orioles are, to put it elegantly, extremely bad, even if they weren’t baseball’s worst team last season (my original plan was to contrast to the Cardinals to the 2020 Detroit Tigers, but this was stifled by the fact that a 2011 Cardinal is on the 2020 Tigers–Edwin Jackson).
Catcher makes for one of the easiest position to which to compare the teams because the 2011 Cardinals catcher is still active–in fact, he’s still a Cardinal. And while Yadier Molina today is not as good as Yadier Molina in 2011, and certainly not as good as what Yadier Molina would become, he does project for 2020 to be a better player than Baltimore Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, the top projected WAR catcher by ZiPS, or Chance Sisco, the more likely Baltimore catcher (Rutschman, while highly regarded, has never played at a level higher than high-A). Even allowing Sisco the same number of plate appearances as Molina, he only gets to about 1.0 zWAR; Molina is at 1.7. Advantage: Cardinals.
First base remains fairly easy for the Cardinals because the guy who played the position is still a Major League Baseball player. And even if Albert Pujols is a shell of his former self, the now-Los Angeles Angels veteran is still only a slightly below-average hitter (which doesn’t say much when you’re a first baseman with no defensive nor base running value, but nevertheless). ZiPS projects him at -0.5 WAR, which is a bit of a problem, but it’s one that can mercifully be avoided. Because the 2011 Cardinals aren’t trying to trot out nostalgic lineups–they’re trying to win games with the personnel at their disposal. Which means they can put David Freese there. While Freese played third base in 2011, he was primarily a first baseman in 2019, and while he announced his retirement after last season, one could reasonably assume he hasn’t completely lost his baseballing mojo. His 162 wRC+ from 2019 is probably not replicable, but ZiPS has Freese as an above-average hitter still. Along with competent if unspectacular defense and base running, Freese reaches a zWAR of 0.8 in 210 plate appearances. This is far superior to Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, an offensive disaster as of late who projects for -1.3 zWAR in 423 plate appearances. Over the course of a full season, this gives the Cardinals about a 4.1 WAR advantage. Between the first two positions presented, the Cardinals have about a five win lead.
At second base, the Cardinals have Daniel Descalso, who was still primarily a second baseman in 2019. He wasn’t a great second baseman, but having a real Major Leaguer is enough, and frankly usually better than what the Baltimore Orioles usually have. ZiPS is not particularly favorable of Descalso in his second year with the Chicago Cubs, pinning him at a zWAR of -0.2 in 320 plate appearances. The Orioles do have the advantage at this position, with 1.2 zWAR in 527 plate appearances Hanser Alberto in the spot. I’ll give the Orioles a 1.6 WAR swing, meaning the Cardinals’ edge currently stands at 3.4 zWAR. Don’t worry, y’all–I haven’t actually built out a way of playing out this game. This is purely a thought experiment.
Shortstop forces the Cardinals to dig a little deeper into a player more synonymous with arriving in St. Louis in 2012–Pete Kozma. Pete Kozma is, hilariously, now a member of the Atlanta Braves organization (I will contribute to his salary if the Nationals ever want to sign him) and last year played in Australia, so while he is not a great baseball player, he is still a living, breathing professional at it, which gives him a decided advantage over Ryan Theriot or Rafael Furcal or Nick Punto. ZiPS still views Kozma, who just turned 32, as a plus defender, but his projected 51 wRC+ means he’s still sub-replacement level. Over 327 plate appearances, his zWAR stands at -0.2, which is frankly quite a bit better than I would have possibly expected. But it is also decidedly worse than Jose Iglesias, who is basically a glorified version of what Pete Kozma was in his prime. Iglesias projects for 1.3 zWAR in 515 plate appearances, so this creates a roughly 1.9 WAR swing for the Orioles. That said, the Cardinals still hold a 1.5 zWAR lead.
At third base, the Cardinals get to count on another player who didn’t play a ton in 2011 but does still qualify–Matt Carpenter. And as much as Cardinals fans have turned on Matt Carpenter for the high crime of agreeing to be paid a bunch of money to play baseball, he remains a firmly above-replacement level third baseman. Even last year, widely perceived as disastrous, he was only slightly below-average at the plate (95 wRC+) and ZiPS projects him for a little bit of a bounce-back, with 2.4 WAR in 532 plate appearances. The Orioles put up a relatively formidable third baseman of their own in Rio Ruiz, but he is a clear step down from Carpenter–Ruiz is at 1.0 zWAR in 512 plate appearances. The Cardinals pick up a win and a half over a full season, doubling their lead to 3.0 zWAR.
The outfield gets a little bit murkier, as one of the Cardinals’ starting outfielders retired in 2013 and the other one retired in 2018. And while Matt Holliday would be far closer to playable than Lance Berkman, he would still not be anyone’s idea of ideal. Their most active outfielder in 2019 was Jon Jay, who struggled mightily with the Chicago White Sox but, again, played Major League Baseball, which counts for something. ZiPS has him at -0.5 zWAR in 386 plate appearances, and while he didn’t play any center field, he played enough of it in the previous few seasons that I’m going to assume he could play it if necessary. The only other outfielder from 2011 with a ZiPS projection is Shane Robinson, who last played in MLB in 2018. In this case, -0.3 zWAR in 325 plate appearances. Realistically, for the third outfield spot, my choices are Holliday or Colby Rasmus, and while Rasmus is younger, Holliday was far better in 2018 and, by any reasonable account, would have more interest in playing in this game. He was actually above replacement level with the Colorado Rockies in 2018, but he is now on the other side of 40 and hasn’t played baseball since then. So I’m going to make something up–I’m going to say Holliday would be a quite bad defender but a mediocre but competent hitter, a 90ish wRC+ type guy. The closest parallel last year among outfielders was Melky Cabrera, who had an 85 wRC+ and bad but probably not Holliday bad defense. He was worth -0.7 fWAR in 397 plate appearances, so let’s give Holliday that. Assuming the Holliday-Jay-Robinson outfield for 600 plate appearances apiece, this outfield projects for about -2.4 zWAR. This is extremely bad. The Orioles’ outfield of Trey Mancini, Austin Hays, and Dilson Herrera projects for about 4.7 zWAR. This is a 7.1 WAR swing in favor of the Orioles. It makes the Orioles 4.1 win favorites.
At designated hitter, a position you can count or not if you’d like, Renato Nunez has a higher projected zWAR than Albert Pujols, but he is also spared having to play defense, a thing uniquely beneficial to 2020 Albert Pujols. But with that, the Orioles lineup begins to look clearly better. Maybe it isn’t as much better as it should be, but a 4.1 win difference is substantial enough that I can’t pretend the result should flip. I’d even take the St. Louis infield, but the Orioles have a massive edge in the outfield that can’t be overcome.
And yet, the St. Louis Cardinals have a huge ace up their sleeve. Their entire starting rotation is retired with the exception of the now-very ineffective Edwin Jackson. John Means, Michael Baumann, and Alex Cobb certainly aren’t great, but the gap between them and the likes of modern Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, and even Jaime Garcia is sizable. But the top projected pitcher between these two teams by far was a Cardinal, and no, I’m not talking about Adam Wainwright, who doesn’t count because he never played in 2011 (I once had a person get very angry at me on Twitter for saying Matt Carpenter, literal 2011 player, was part of the 2011 team while Wainwright wasn’t). I’m talking about 3.7 zWAR starting pitcher Lance Lynn, who pitched in relief, including in the playoffs, for the Cardinals in 2011. He has a 1.6 zWAR edge over any starting pitcher on the Orioles. The Cardinals should be favorites in any game he starts.
In a one-game playoff, I’m probably taking the Orioles because while the Cardinals would have the starting pitching advantage, the Orioles could trot out other starters and a competent bullpen, while the Cardinals, post-Lynn, would have to depend on Edwin Jackson and Fernando Salas, barely hanging on in MLB in 2019, to finish the job. Over a seven-game series, I’d take the Orioles, but I don’t think it would be a sweep. I think the Cardinals would be highly competitive in Lance Lynn’s starts and not completely doomed when others start. And the idea that the 2011 Cardinals might still be an MLB-quality team, albeit a very bad one, will continue to fill me with great joy.